Too Much of a Good Thing?

For years I’ve advocated for single-composer concerts as the best way for listeners to get familiar with someone’s music, but now I’m starting to have some second thoughts.

Sure, just as a painter’s work can be overlooked in a group exhibition or a specific author’s poem might get lost in an anthology, the work of a composer might be soon forgotten when presented on a hodgepodge concert program. How many times have you walked away remembering all the music you heard on a new music concert featuring unfamiliar work by eight different composers?

Yet by hermetically sealing off a single composer’s work, are we somehow losing a contextual framework for listening to it? And, if the various works being presented together in such a retrospective were all written for various ensembles to be the one new music work on that program, or at least to be the one work by that composer on that program, are we somehow taking the music out of context by lumping it all together?

I’ve heard people react to single-composer concerts with comments like: “It’s just too much to take in,” or “All that music sounds the same.” But these reactions aren’t really fair since most composers have an identifiable sound that characterizes their work, and each work more than likely wasn’t intended to be experienced in such close proximity to others of its kin.

As a composer, I personally love such programs because it allows me to get inside the head of another composer, but I’m willing to concede that others might not want such a heady experience all the time. Who besides the judges on Iron Chef seek out multi-course meals including dessert, all featuring broccoli? Could a healthier listening diet be created by devising concert programs featuring works created in the same year or works written in response to similar events? You know, an evening of music written in 1996 or musical responses to war, etc. Clearly there are problems with the eight-unfamiliar-works approach, but what are some other viable alternatives to an evening of just one compositional voice?

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3 thoughts on “Too Much of a Good Thing?

  1. coreydargel

    Curatorial
    Frank, I think it boils down to good programming. If the curator or presenter of the concert invests the time and energy in choosing pieces that compliment each other well and make for a cohesive program, then it doesn’t matter whether the concert features music by one composer or multiple composers.

    Reply
  2. danbecker

    Hey Frank,

    What do you have against the nubmer 8? I can’t help but pipe in here, since our composers collective, Common Sense, routinely spends a lot of time working on shows where we present 8 new works by the members of the collective.

    But this is a huge topic of course, and I basically agree with Corey that it’s all about programming. I, for one, am obsessed with programming, and I think it’s one of the most unsung talents and underdiscussed issues out there in the concert wilderness. With careful, smart, savvy programming, you can make almost anything work.

    When producing our OPUS415 Bay Area New Music Marathons here in San Francisco, programming was always a huge issue. In trying to present 10 hours of diverse music, I took a kind of ‘fractal’ approach to programming. The goal was to try and make each of the four 2.5 hour “sets” work as a great show in itself for those who only came for a short time, as well as to make entire 10 hour Marathon a great show for those who might stay. A real challenge, but a joyous one for those so inclined.

    I myself am biased against the ONE composer show. Or the ONE “Style” show. Or the ONE “anything” show.
    I think my tastes have been formed by two experiences which left quite an imprint:

    1 The first was a summer at Aspen where someone in PR had the idea of programming all of the Brahms Violin Sonatas on one program. Need I say more? (If I do, let me know, and I can describe the event!). Later that summer there was an orchestra concert of all sound-mass pieces by Penderecki, Xenakis, etc. It may have looked good on paper, but for me it was a lousy concert experience.

    2. The second is my experience attending years of Bang on a Can Marathons, (which were naturally the inspiration for our shows here in SF.) Having to change my “listening strategy” from piece to piece for several hours was one of the most fun and useful perceptual challenges I’ve ever had. There’s a quote from David Lang (that I’m sure I’m misrembering) where he writes how after 8 hours or so, all of the “compartments” and “stylistic boxes” in one’s brain begin to break down from sheer exhaustion, and so your mind is forced to let things enter in a way that you never did before. Perhaps David never actually said this, but if he didn’t, he should have! — I for one have found it so so true, and so useful.

    I’ll only touch on another important issue: the often discusses proposition that many Composers are really spending their lives writing one large “meta-piece”. If you accept this propostion at all, one can see how it adds to the challenge of programming the one composer show. (I’ll wager anyone that if you ignore this theory all together, you’ll probably end up programing a lousy concert.)

    Anyway, just a few quick, caffeineted thoughts about a subject that I could rant about for hours. But in the end, I’ll go back and misquote Corey, “IT’S THE PROGRAMMING, STUPID”. And not just in terms of the pieces, but also PROGRAM ORDER. Another huge issue that’s rarley discussed and almost always given short shrift!! But I better stop now…

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  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Dan,

    I guarantee you that the number eight was completely arbitrary in my comments above. Well, maybe not so arbitrary since the number eight carries a ton of subliminal metaphoric significance. Do a google search on “eighth day” and you’ll see what I mean. Even the idiogram for infinity is a sideways 8. I was looking for a number that was small and demonstrative of typical new music concerts but was big enough to be able to make a point about getting lost in a crowd.

    Certainly the 8 composer-concerts/events/recordings of the Common Sense Composers Collective fall outside my comment since these are always so well thought out. The idea of eight different compositional voices tackling the same idea of, say, how to write new music for an ensemble of old instruments, to cite my favorite Common Sense example, is exactly the kind of right approach to an organic program I think.

    So, it’s not about the number but what you do with the number. That said, however, most wine glass sets are sold in sixes and two people would get left out of a Chinese Checkers game ;) For some reason, though, we keep a total of eight of most sets of plates and stemware at home and a whomping 12 of utensils. Must be the residue of serialist thinking, right? Well, the set I bought came that way and the price was right.

    – FJO

    Reply

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